Football 101: Football Positions & Their Roles

There are many football positions who have obvious roles, like the quarterback. But when it comes to telling the difference between the fullback and running back, it may not be as easy.

There are many football positions who have obvious roles, like the quarterback. But when it comes to telling the difference between the fullback and running back, it may not be as easy.

In America, football is the undisputed heavyweight champion of all team sports, so it’s often assumed that most know the fundamentals of the game. But for others, their knowledge of ‘offsides’ is off-base and rather than scoping the field, they’re too busy fielding questions. What are the 11 positions on a football team? What is the job of a linebacker? What is a quarterback’s job exactly?

For these football fledglings, understanding what each player on the field does can be tough. Luckily, this position primer is here to help. Read on to learn about football roles and responsibilities and avoid getting flagged for your football befuddlement.

PART 1: Offensive Players

This section will help you score some insight on the players whose primary role is to score touchdowns. There are 11 players on offense at a time. Through a series of plays that involve passing and running the ball, they want to work their way down the field until they get into the end zone. The offense consists of:

  • Quarterback (QB) – The field general. He calls the plays, initiates action and handles the “snap.” He either hands the ball to the running back or passes the ball to a receiver. He may also run with the ball. The quarterback’s must be able to throw the ball with power and accuracy.
  • Running Back (RB) – Also known as the Halfback. This player does it all. Lining up either behind or beside the quarterback, he runs, he catches, he blocks and he’ll even throw a pass from time to time. A running back is normally a player who is a quick runner and thrives on contact.
  • Fullback (FB) – Like a heartier version of the RB, but in the modern game usually more of a lead blocker out of the backfield. Fullbacks are normally good runners with exceptional strength.
  • Offensive Line – There are five offensive linemen. In order from left to right, they are: the Left Tackle (LT), Left Guard (LG), Center (C), Right Guard (RG) and Right Tackle (RT). It is their job to either pass block for the QB so he has time to throw or run block for the RB or FB. Most of the time, with the exception of the Center “snapping” the ball to the QB, offensive linemen do not touch the ball. The offensive line is usually made up of the biggest, strongest players on the team.
  • Wide Receivers (WR) – Wide receivers, for the most part, are known as pass catchers. They start the play split out wide from the rest of the formation, at or near the line of scrimmage (an imaginary line that extends from sideline to sideline at the point where the ball is placed) and run pass routes awaiting a pass from the QB. On running plays, they will throw blocks and occasionally take a handoff. Those in the wide receiver position normally have a combination of blazing speed and strong hand-eye coordination.
  • Tight End (TE) – This player is a hybrid between a receiver and an offensive lineman. Generally, he lines up next to the LT or RT or he can “split out” like a wide receiver. His duties include blocking for both the quarterback and the running backs, but he can also run into the field and catch passes. Tight ends can catch like a receiver, but has the strength and size to dominate on the line.

PART 2: The Defensive Players 

Part two is here to help you tackle the roles of the defense. Like the offense, there are 11 defensive players on the field. Their job is to prevent the offense from scoring by tackling players or causing turnovers.

  • Defensive Line – This is the first line of defense and consists of three or four players who line up opposite the offensive line. They are two Defensive Ends (DE) on either side and one or two Defensive Tackles (DT). Their job is to shed the blocks of the offensive linemen and tackle ball carriers, usually running backs coming through the line or quarterbacks dropping back to pass. If a player is on the defensive line, they are generally big and strong.
  • Linebacker (LB) – As the name implies, the Linebackers back the defensive line. Depending on the defensive alignment, there are usually three or four on the field. Outside linebackers (OLB) stand to the sides of the DEs and Inside linebackers (ILB) or middle linebackers (MLB) stand behind the DTs. LBs are usually responsible for shadowing RBs, TEs and sometimes WRs; rushing the passer; and tackling ball carriers. Those who are linebackers are likely strong and fast.
  • Cornerback (CB) – Cornerbacks are usually the fastest player on the defense. They support the run, and might be asked to blitz the QB, but spend most of their time covering wide receivers. This means they try to break up passes, tackle players who catch passes, and try to intercept passes coming their way. There are usually two to four CBs on the field at a time. Cornerbacks should be really fast and capable tacklers.
  • Safety (S) – There are two S positions: The Strong Safety (SS) and the Free Safety (FS). The strong safety is usually, well, strong, and fast. They are usually responsible for covering TEs, RBs, and WRs and playing down the field but are often expected to come up in run support. The Free Safety has similar duties but is commonly considered the center fielder, and thus the last line of the defense. A safety should be fast and strong, and be a capable tackler.

PART 3: SPECIAL TEAMS

This final segment can help you be savvy with special teams. Specialty players take the field during field goals, punts and kick-offs. These players consist of:

    • Kicker (K) – The kicker is responsible for kickoffs and field goals. They are strong-legged players who can kick accurately from a tee on kickoffs and from a holder on field goals.
    • Punter (P) – The punter is responsible for kicking the ball away if the offense fails to get a first down. They are strong-legged players who can accurately kick a ball by dropping it from their outstretched hands.
    • Return Specialists – There are two types of return specialists: Kick Returner (KR) and Punt Returner (PR). These are the players the punter and kicker are kicking to on punts and kickoffs.

Understanding the roles of each player on the football field can be a doozy. But with this guide, you should be on your way to having a strong grasp on strong safeties, full familiarity with fullbacks and so much more.

To be sure that you don’t make a false statement about false starts, check out this gridiron glossary to impress your friends with some common football lingo.

  • Backfield – The group of offensive skill players, namely the quarterback and running backs, that line up behind the line of scrimmage. It can also refer to the area of the field behind the line of scrimmage.
  • Blitz – A play by the defense in which one or more linebackers or defensive backs charge the opponent’s backfield. This can help put pressure on opposing quarterbacks and lead to sacks and rushed throws.
  • Bootleg – When a quarterback fakes a handoff to a running back and instead takes the ball outside to either complete a pass or run it himself.
  • Draw – When a quarterback looks as if he is intending to pass, but instead either hands off the ball for a rush or keeps it himself.
  • Encroachment – Term to describe when a defensive player illegally crosses the line of scrimmage prior to the ball being snapped and makes contact with an opposing player.
  • Fair Catch – When a punt returner decides to catch a punt without the intention of advancing after the catch. A fair catch is signaled when the punt returner waves his extended arm over his head. No defensive player can tackle the punt returner once a fair catch has been signaled.
  • Horse Collar – When a defensive player brings down a ball carrier by grabbing onto the back of the ball carrier’s collar and shoulder pads.
  • Lateral – When a player passes the ball parallel or behind him to another player. This can be done anywhere on the field at any time. It’s also known as a backward pass.
  • Pick-Six – When a defensive player returns an interception for a touchdown.
  • Play Action – A move by the offense in an attempt to fake out the defense. It appears to start as a running play, but the quarterback will fake handing off the ball and instead attempt a pass.
  • Pocket – The area on the offensive side of the line of scrimmage where the quarterback stands. This area is where linemen try to stop defensive players from reaching the QB on passing plays.
  • Red Zone – An unofficial area that spans from the 20-yard line to the goal line of the defensive team. A defense should consider it a moral victory if they hold an offense to a field goal in this area.
  • Sack – When a defensive player tackles a quarterback behind the line of scrimmage for a loss of yards.
  • Safety – A scoring play when the defense tackles a ball carrier in their own end zone. A safety results in two points for the defense.
  • Shotgun – An offensive formation in which a quarterback stands five to seven yards behind the center to take the snap.
  • Squib Kick – A kicked ball with a low flight path. A squib kick is used to limit the return team’s ability to advance the football with a quality return.
  • Sticks – Term used to describe the sideline down markers. A first down is referred to as “moving the sticks.”
  • Stiff Arm – A move by an offensive player in which they fully extend the arm they are not using to carry the ball and use it to fend off a defender.
  • Three-and-Out – When an offense fails to get a first down using their first three downs and must punt on fourth down.
  • Touchback – When the ball is downed by the returner behind their own goal line or the ball is kicked through the end zone. The ball is then placed at the 20-yard line for play to resume.